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Tokaj: Sweet, But Not Just Sweet

Judit Bodó of Bott Pince

Wine has a long and storied history in Tokaj. Wines of Tokaj have been favorites with emperors and royals for centuries--celebrated in salons across Europe. Its best vineyard sites have been classified since 1737--the oldest classification in the world. It was named to the list of World Heritage "Cultural Heritage Landscapes" in 2002.

For 99% of this history, the wines of note have all been of one specific type: Tokaji Aszu. Tokaji Aszu is a remarkable sweet wine made from bottyrized grapes--late harvest grapes with sugars intensely concentrated by "noble rot." Some in the US may be more familiar with the sweet wines of Sauternes or the late harvest wines of Germany or Alsace than they are with those from Hungary--but evidence suggests that the process of making wines from botrytis-affected grapes probably originated in Tokaj (for clarity, Tokaj is a place, Tokaji is a possessive term referring to something from Tokaj). As discoveries often do, the discovery of the value of botrytis came about somewhat by accident, as circumstances forced growers to pick late. They found that the grapes were shriveled--but essentially healthy. It's an oversimplification, but botrytis can occur when vineyards are located near a body of water--a river or lake--in a climate that produces evening and morning fog which burns off with afternoon sun. In Tokaj, the rivers Bodrog and Tisza are the engines for the evening and morning mist as the region cools. This moisture triggers the "rot"...but the sun burns the fog off and the warm afternoons and frequent breezes dry the grapes and keep the rot on the noble side and away from the destructive gray or black rot. Uniquely in Tokaj, the shriveled grapes are often gently pressed into a very sweet paste which is then macerated in fresh must, imparting the sweetness to the wine, in the process called aszu.

I had previously had some sweet wines from Tokaj and had a sense of how good they are (though I didn't fully appreciate how diverse and complex they can be). But I had only had a few dry wines from Tokaj--and that was my primary reason for visiting the region. I'd read about excellent dry whites--but had found few on the market here in the DC area. That's partially understandable. Though the sweet wines of Tokaj have a tradition of many centuries and an international reputation, emphasis on high quality dry wines only came about in the last two decades or so. Orosz Gabor may have made the first single vineyard furmint in 1998 and they didn't get much international attention until Istvan Szepsy's 2000 Úrága Vineyard Furmint gained acclaim. In that sense, perhaps Tojaj is not unlike Portugal's Duoro Valley--where the emphasis has always been on growing grapes for port and only in recent years has the wine world realized that their vineyards can also produce excellent dry wines.

One challenge that Tojaj (and all Hungarian wine regions) had to face--which most of the wine world did not--was communist ideology that treated grapes as a commodity and prioritized quantity over quality. While a quality revolution was sweeping much of the wine world, Hungarian wine growers were dealing with production quotas. Unfortunate. But there are a number of producers in Tokaj who are rapidly making up for lost time. We were fortunate to visit with four of them.

The first of our visits, Bott Pince ("Pince" is Hungarian for "Cellar"), made a powerful impression on us--both because of the quality of the wines and because of the back-story of the estate. Judit Bott, pictured above, was born in the village of Csallóköz, a Hungarian community in was her husband to be, József Bodó. The literature says that about 20 years ago she went to work for a wine producer in the South Tirol "following her love for wine." And I'm sure there's truth to that--but as we chatted, she put it in more practical terms: "I went there for work." She impressed her employers with her ability (and, I'm sure, her personality, which is warm and genuine). They were considering expanding into Tokaj--this was the early 2000s and the region was coming to life. They offered her the opportunity to lead their effort. She took it--though not without some nervousness. In preparation, they sent her to South Africa to work harvest there. She was fluent in German (as well as Slovak and Hungarian and perhaps others) and they told her she'd have no trouble with Afrikaans. And that might have been true. Unfortunately, they spoke English in the winery, not Afrikaans--and she didn't speak English. She may have cried when no one was looking, but she also showed the strength that underpins this warm and friendly woman. With the help of others working that harvest, she studied and practiced English late at night, after work was done. Results suggest she learned well--both English and winemaking.

While Judit focused on making wine in Tokaj for Füleky (the company that had sent her there) her husband József began searching for a vineyard. He found one...a small one, which is what they could afford. But it was high quality. They made their first wine--a single vineyard furmint--in 2005 from approximately one hectare and they called their winery Bott--Judit's maiden name. Judit had a sister but no brothers--so calling it Bott was a way for her family name to live on. We asked if her parents were proud. She paused...smiled...and said "very proud...very proud!" And with this initial effort, she left Füleky and they concentrated on growing Bott. József farms the vineyards and Judit makes the wine. Nice days may find them both out with the vines and rainy days may find them both in the cellar, but each plays a leadership role in their domain. They're now up to about five hectares and five or six dry wines as well as several sweet ones.

For those who have visited a number of wineries and tasted with a number of winemakers, you know that the experience you have affects your perception of wine. That rosé you drank with the winemaker on a beautiful afternoon at a harborside café in the south of France is probably not one of the world's great wines, like it seemed at the time. So I wondered if the fact that we were so charmed by Judit made us love the wine. No worries--I've tasted it since I got home and still love it. While most Americans may not know the wines of Bott, insiders do--and respect them. Hungarian-Canadian master sommelier John Szabo, who has studied and written about the region, is a big fan. Tellingly, so are the other winemakers we talked to in Tokaj. I have not found Bott wines on the shelves in any of our shops in DC (Hungarian wines don't have the presence they deserve) but they can be ordered directly from the website of importer Blue Danube Wines.

Space doesn't permit going into equal detail on every winery we visited. Oremus was purchased by the Álvarez family of Spain, owners of the iconic Vega Sicilia. Their investment, and their focus, show. The visit to their historic cellar--about 4 km of tunnels--was really enjoyable. And the folks at Oremus were very generous in sharing some rare and mature sweet wines with us. A real treat. It was also a treat to visit Szepsy. Istvan Szepsy is probably Hungary's best known winemaker. He wasn't able to host us due to the harvest load that day, but his daughter, Kinga, welcomed us at her restaurant, Percze (named for one of their vineyards). She gave us good insight into the family's history and their vineyards and poured a number of their wines (to accompany her excellent dishes). Outstanding wine and a very enjoyable experience.

The other experience that made a powerful impression on us was at Királyudvar with owner Tony Hwang. If you look hard, you can find things that Tony and Judit have in common. They were both born somewhere else (Judit in Slovakia and Tony in the Philippines). They both came to Tokaj about 20 years ago, give or take a few. And they both respect each other and each other's wines. But there are also major differences. Judit is still on the front end of her career...whereas Tony and I, as he put it, are "of a certain age." Judit worked her way up from scratch in Tokaj...Tony worked his way up, but it was in the US, where he became a nationally known physicist and businessman. He came to Tokaj already immensely successful. Judit and József own about five hectares. Besides Királyudvar, Tony owns the iconic Domaine Huet in the Loire Valley. Yet both are down-to-earth, personable and passionate about their wines.

Királyudvar is a historic property--once part of the royal domain (the name means King's Court). Tony has employed several of Tokaj's best winemakers, including Istvan Szepsy (before he focused exclusively on Szepsy wines). He believes that the young, talented Szabolcs Júhâsz will take the winery to new levels. Based on the wines we tasted, I suspect he's right.

Like most top Tokaj producers, the reputation of Királyudvar was originally built on sweet wines. And they continue to produce a range of outstanding ones. But they have diversified their portfolio. The 2014 Furmint Sec was one of the best dry wines we tasted--beautifully balanced. And the 2009 Demi-Sec was also excellent. Like off-dry chenin blancs from the Loire Valley, it would be delicious with spicy food or complex meals (like Thanksgiving). That's not the only parallel. Domaine Huet, Tony's Vouvray estate, makes outstanding sparkling wine. The sparkling wine Tony introduced at Királyudvar, beginning in 2007, may be Hungary's belongs on wine lists with top sparkling wines from all the more famous regions.

Királyudvar's range of sweet wines is varied and extensive. Interestingly, Tony has named two after family members. Cuvée Ilona is named for his wife (Evelyn) and is made from late harvest (botyrized) grapes...without the maceration that marks the aszu process. Delicious! And Cuvée Patricia is named for his daughter (who manages Domaine Huet). She is the one who suggested this late harvest wine made from muscat (uncommon in this part of Hungary). And Királyudvar makes outstanding aszu. Besides the "basic" Aszu--we loved the 2007--they make a single vineyard version from Lapis Vineyard and, for those with a real sweet tooth (and a very healthy wallet) an Esszencia made from free run juice with extraordinarily high sweetness (over 450 g/l). Sweet as it is, the honeyed nectar is balanced by strong acidity. This isn't a wine to drink with dessert--it's a complex, luxurious dessert all by itself! The Country Vintner does distribute Királyudvar in DC and Maryland. I have not seen much of it, but it should be possible to order from a DC or Maryland shop.

Tokaj. An historic wine region now experiencing exceptional innovation and growth. The wines are outstanding. They deserve more attention than they get in our wine shops and on our restaurant wine lists. Look for them. Ask for them. It'll be worth the effort.

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